Go to any gym in the country and you’ll see the same thing: lines of red-faced individuals puffing away on cardio machines, trying to burn the fat or blast themselves into shape. The stair climber, the cross trainer, and the stationery cycle are just some of these popular types of workout station.
Is it possible though that all this effort is misplaced? What if we don’t need this investment in time, money and energy?
I think I’d have a hard time convincing you that you’d be better off at home on the sofa, but I would like to make the case that there are much easier, quicker and more interesting ways to get good results without ever hitting the big, green ‘start’ button.
One of the first problems with these cardio machines is that they’re unnatural. This isn’t the sort of exercise that we evolved to do. It doesn’t chime with our evolutionary instincts. Going back thousands of years, exercise was hunting – a super stimulating, sensory-heighten activity involving lots of slow, varied movement and moments of sudden explosive power as we sprinted, full pelt, towards or away from an adversary or prey.
I’m sure you can already begin to see some discrepancies when you consider a normal gym experience.
For starters, cardio as practiced in the gym is dull. Very dull. Duller than a dull day in Dulwich! Being stationary, you are faced with an unchanging view for long periods of time. You’ve probably noticed that when you walk or cycle outdoors normally, the scenery tends to trundle on past you? Not so in the gym. You do sometimes get a mini-television to watch though. This will ensure that there is no way that your mind can be fully involved in the present moment and engaged with the activity you are mindlessly pursuing.
Secondly, you’re indoors, yet cardiovascular exercise presents the best opportunity to get outside the concrete cages we surround ourselves with all day long. Getting outdoors, ideally into a natural environment, is one of the most crucial things to do to boost your metabolic rate and raise serotonin and Vitamin D levels. This is hardly an arcane secret: it’s not only backed by science but also the good instincts of those city office workers who try to get to the park in their lunch break. They know from experience that their afternoon will be the better for it with higher levels of energy, motivation and drive.
What is less well known is that there is a growing number of people attesting to the existence of “Nature Deficit Disorder” which appears to affect many people from urban areas who don’t get a sufficient dose of mud, leaves, trees, insects, wind, temperature change, sunshine and other facets of a real environment – things that our ancestors interacted with every day of their lives.
Others have dismissed the idea that this should be considered a disorder, citing a lack of evidence. All I know is that most of the happy times of my life have been outdoors, and I think that’s no coincidence. I am always happier at the end of a walk in the woods than I am when I set off. Never have I returned to the house miserable, wishing I’d covered the same distance at a gym.
Thirdly, most of these machines, apart from the treadmill, are non-weight bearing. Now this can be a good thing if you are injured. However it’s well known that an absence of weight-bearing activity leads to a weakening of the bones and connective tissues, and increased incidences of falls and broken bones in later life. So it is just possible that the cross-trainer isn’t the wonder machine it is often painted as.
The fourth reason is that the machines are so often used competitively. We compete with ourselves, we compete with the machine and we compete with the person next to us. This isn’t useful for cardio. Cardio should be conducted at an easy, conversational pace so that we finish feeling more energised than when we started. However, gyms and the nature of cardio machines encourage us to push, push and push – until we’re ready to drop.
Now this isn’t something a human being should choose to do regularly. If you’re not sure about this, check out the health record of most world-class endurance athletes. Despite being awesomely fit, they are often on the edge of breakdown, their immune systems stretched to the limit to counter the physical and mental stresses to which they subject themselves. Our early ancestors would certainly not have seen the point of this and would have sensibly chosen to save their energy for emergencies or activities with more intrinsic meaning.
Finally, most cardio is unnaturally repetitive. Even on the treadmill – yes, you’re running which is good – but every step is exactly like the last. There is no texture to the run. It’s a sheer slog. The ground underneath your feet is identical for every step, meaning the tiny muscles in your feet are not encouraged to work hard to adjust to constantly changing terrain. The landscape offers no challenge at all.
Beware of your metabolism – “It’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it…”
Now I’m certainly not against running, bicycling or anything else. I love it. What I see as harmful is the ‘chronic’ form of cardio (in the form of running, bicycling, or whatever) that most people adopt. If you’re out of breath for extended periods of time, you’re doing yourself no long-term favours. You can’t even expect to burn off more fat this way. You would be shocked at how much time you have to spend exercising to burn off the calories in just a small sandwich, but that’s not the only reason that relying on tough, long cardio sessions to lose weight is pure folly.
At higher speeds our metabolism switches from burning fat as its primary fuel, to glucose. This means that glucose (the sugar that gets stored in the muscles) gets depleted, a situation that our body doesn’t take kindly to. Its response is to desperately recoup what’s been lost and to do its best to prevent this situation happening again. So it increases appetite over the next 24 hours.
The result of all this depletion is: You end up actually eating more after this sort of exercise and usually adding more weight to your poor, burdened frame. I have read that the average body fat percentage of runners at running clubs is 22% (a bit chubby). Should we not expect this to be much lower if regular, extended, effortful running was a helpful adjunct to weight loss?
Therefore, as a rule of thumb, when exercise is extensive (25 minutes plus) it should be so dead easy that, should you choose, you could keep it up all day. But when exercise is short and intensive it should be exhilarating, stimulating, fun and BRIEF.